A salaryman worth his salt

2 min read
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Do you really know where your salary comes from?

The word “salary” comes from the Latin word “salarium,” which originally referred to a soldier’s allowance for the purchase of salt. Salt was a valuable commodity up until modern times, often used as a preservative and for seasoning. Sometimes even as a currency in trade. The Latin word “salarium” is derived from “sal,” meaning salt. The median UK salary after tax is about £2400 a month, which buys about 2 tons of salt.

Our bodies cannot produce the essential minerals that salt gives us. If you do not consume enough salt you die. In fact, until tin cans were invented in the 19th century salt was an essential preservative. If you couldn’t use salt to preserve your food, your food would quickly go bad, and you would starve. Salted meats, fish, dairy and vegetables were an important part of the diet of all civilisations. Cheddar cheese, Chinese soy sauce, Italian ham and Polish pickles all require salt. Even Tabasco sauce was invented by a salt mine owner who was trying to find a use for his salt.

Fortunately, salt today is cheap and universally available. But look closely at Da Vinci’s Last Supper: can you see that Judas spilled the salt? Wasting salt is clearly a bad omen. Historically wars have been fought over salt. In the seventeenth century, about a third of Polish crown revenues came from a single salt mine (Wieliczka). The onerous salt tax known as “gabelle” was one of the drivers of the French revolution. We don’t even have to go that far back in history. Gandhi’s famous salt march, an act of civil disobedience which protested against the British salt monopoly in India, happened in 1930.

The importance of salt has remained in the idioms we use. Hence, a person who is deserving of his or her salary is “worth their salt”. But you can also take things “with a pinch of salt”, “rub salt into someone’s wound”, be the “salt of the earth” or “salt away” something for storage. A wide range of towns are named after salt. The Austrian city of Salzburg means “salt castle”. Most English town ending in “wich” were originally salt-producing towns, “wich” being the old Anglo-Saxon word for saltworks.

If you’d like to know more about the fascinating history of salt, I highly recommend Salt - A world history by Mark Kurlansky.